By Tia Lynn Ivey
The City of Madison became the site of a child predator undercover sting operation last week, in which law enforcement agents set up shop at a local Madison motel to catch six people who responded to a fake advertisement for underage sex on a Craigslist-type website. Only one of the six people arrested was from Madison, Percy Harris, a 37-year-old plumber.
Others arrested in the sting were Charles Keown, 56, of Conyers, Joshua Zuniga, 31, of Acworth, Phillip Wood, 43, of Commerce, Sheldon Hinson, 21, Midland, and Elizabeth Browner, 23, of Commerce. Those arrested were charged with Criminal Attempt to Commit Child Molestation. One of those arrested was also identified and charged with adult prostitution related charges.
“This was meant to protect our children,” said Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn. “It was a good thing to see all these agencies come together to do this.”
Ashburn noted that the sting was set up in Madison, not because the city is rife with sex offenders, but because Madison is centrally located between Atlanta, Athens, Macon, Milledgeville, and Augusta–a prime location to attract predators from surrounding areas.
The sting was coined as “Operation Southern Hospitality,” a three-month-long effort to catch online child predators and victims of child sex trafficking. The operation was a joint program orchestrated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit (CEACC), the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, the Madison Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of Georgia and the District Attorney’s Office of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. Eight additional law enforcement entities participated in “Operation Southern Hospitality” as members of the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. These agencies were the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, Glynn County Sheriff’s Office, Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Toombs County Sheriff’s Office, the Woodstock Police Department, and Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center (GISAC).
The GBI created a fake advertisement on a website known for soliciting sex. When people contacted them, they made it abundantly clear that it would be with a 14-year-old girl. According to Ashburn, most of the people who answered the advertisement immediately rejected the offer once they discovered it involved underage sex. But six people arrived in Madison believing they were going to engage in sex with a 14-year-old girl, but instead, they left in handcuffs.
“This was not entrapment,” said Ashburn. “The people on that site were already there to solicit sex and they were given plenty of opportunity to get out of it. These kind of operations help law enforcement catch these predators before they make our children their victims.”
The Morgan County Sheriff’s Department assisted the operation by providing officers for the take-down team and with transportation of prisoners arrested in the sting.
“It was a good operation,” said Sheriff Robert Markley. “All of these different agencies came together to set up this sting, where they attracted these potential child predators…and they were able to make the arrests.”
“In today’s world, these kind of stings are absolutely necessary,” added Markley. “There are all these websites out there where criminals are advertising children and prostitutes. As law enforcement, you have to constantly change the way you do business to keep up with the crime trends that are out there.”
According to a GBI press release, “The purpose of ‘Operation Southern Hospitality’ was to arrest those that are willing to exploit children by purchasing sex with a minor, and the recruitment of victims of child sex trafficking. The operation specifically targeted the demand side of child sex trafficking. The operation also targeted those persons who communicate with children on-line and then travel to meet them for the purpose of having sex. On-line child predators visit chat rooms and websites on the internet, find children, begin conversations with them, introduce sexual content and arrange a meeting with the children for the purpose of having sex. The children these predators target are both boys and girls.
The Georgia ICAC Task Force is comprised of 200+ local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, other related criminal justice agencies and prosecutor’s offices. The mission of the ICAC Task Force, created by the U. S. Department of Justice and managed and operated by the GBI in Georgia, is to assist state and local law enforcement agencies in developing an effective response to cyber enticement and child pornography cases. This support encompasses forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, victim services, prevention and community education. The ICAC Program was developed in response to the increasing number of children and teenagers using the internet, the proliferation of child pornography, and the heightened online activity by predators searching for unsupervised contact with underage victims. By helping state and local law enforcement agencies develop effective and sustainable responses to online child victimization and child pornography, the ICAC program delivers national resources at the local level.
The Georgia ICAC Task Force made 244 arrests in 2015. The GA ICAC TF received almost 3,000 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2015 and worked 3,872 investigations related to child exploitation. The GA ICAC TF also conducted 391 Internet safety presentations.”